At the end of spring practices, the defensive line at Fresno State was very thin. The Bulldogs felt good about Todd Hunt, a returning starter at end, and the progress that Nate Madsen had made in moving inside to nose guard from end.
But the depth was not there, inside or out, and even after adding junior college signees Patrick Belony and Nick Kristofors late, more needed to get the Bulldogs where they wanted and needed to be going into fall camp and the season.
Redshirt freshman end Kyle Hendrickson and redshirt sophomore Ryan Steele are helping the Bulldogs get there — Hendrickson putting on 15 pounds from the end of the spring to the start of fall camp to get to 263 and Steele adding 15 pounds to get back up to 285.
It did not happen all of a sudden, but the group has a different look than it did five months ago.
“We’ve got a lot of depth,” defensive line coach Pete Germano said. “I couldn’t say that in the spring. We had some gap issues in terms of what the level one was versus the level two — there was a bigger drop off I thought. I think Ryan Steele’s work ethic in the offseason, Kyle’s, to name just two, and the addition of the other two kids, I think we’ve closed that gap with the ones, which is what I want ... competition. I want guys to earn their job. I don’t want it to be handed to them.”
9 Number of Bulldogs players competing to play on the defensive line
Hendrickson and Steele were not available to comment; coach Tim DeRuyter does not allow players to meet with the media until they have played in a game.
But the Bulldogs in fall camp have nine legitimate players to evaluate between the nose guard spot and the two end positions, and Hendrickson and Steele have worked their way into the mix. Both are getting reps with the second-unit defense.
“I think he has the frame to continue to fit the mold of what we’re looking for,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said of Hendrickson, who came in as a freshman at 250 pounds.
“He has worked hard at it. I think that’s the type of guy we have to recruit at Fresno State: a long body who has the potential to be 285 pounds. And the thing with him is he has the work ethic and the foundation. You have the faith that he’s going to develop into that. If you’re going to take one of those guys that is developmental size-wise, he better have that foundation and he has. He’s still 19 years old as a freshman so he’s going to have a whole bunch of mistakes, but I’m excited about evaluating him. He has a chance just like those other guys do.”
Steele, from Kingsburg High, is similar in his development through a redshirt year.
“The transformation that he has made in a year, when you’re recruiting players that’s what you’re hoping for,” Toth said. “No. 1, you don’t want to be in a position where you have to play them young and early, which we have been off and on. But Ryan has worked his butt off to get where he is at. The process of redshirting and developing a kid, that’s where he is at. We have to watch film and he has a lot of stuff that he can do better, but if a kid is maximizing his potential, that’s all you can ask from him, and I think that’s where he is at.”
The questions at the end of camp will be who has emerged, and whether the group can be more productive than a year ago when the defense as a whole struggled. Fresno State ranked fourth in the Mountain West Conference with 30 sacks with 85 coming from nose guard Tyeler Davison, who is now in camp with the New Orleans Saints.
201.9 Fresno State opponents’ average rushing yards in 2014
But the Bulldogs gave up 201.9 rushing yards per game to rank eighth in the conference — the average was high in blowout losses against Power Five opponents USC, Utah and Nebraska (271.7 ypg) as well as their Mountain West Conference opponents (202.0 ypg). And they were ninth in the conference in scoring defense (32.4 ppg) and 10th in total defense (456.0 ypg).
“There still are depth questions,” Toth said. “We have nine guys to evaluate, but we have to find out who the ones are consistently and who can go in and replace them. Not only replace them, but who can go in and make plays. I like the group, but you want to put guys on the field that make plays, not fill the spot. I like what we get to evaluate. It’s a solid group, but everything is up for grabs. Todd Hunt is probably the closest that we have and he’d be the first to tell you that the starting job is not his.”
The Bulldogs, though, are well ahead of where they were five months ago, when the numbers in the position group were down and some of the players in it were not game ready.
“The big thing with some of those guys,” Germano said, “was they get bigger and they get stronger, put some weight on and then make sure they learn the defense.”
’Dogs in camp
Camp highlights leading up to the Sept. 3 season opener against Abilene Christian at Bulldog Stadium:
- Monday, Aug. 10: Practice No. 5 (first in full pads)
- Thursday, Aug. 13: Practice No. 10, 6-8 p.m. (scrimmage No. 1; only practice open to the public)
- Thursday, Aug. 20: Practice No. 18 (scrimmage No. 2)
- Monday, Aug. 24: Practice No. 21 (scrimmage No. 3)
- Wednesday, Sept. 2: Practice No. 29 (pregame walkthrough)